Everyone needs to calm down’: experts assess Russian nuclear space threat

Image by Getty / Futurism

Image by Getty / Futurism

By Nicola Davis,
Published by The Guardian, 15 February 2024

Attacks in Earth’s orbit as likely to damage Russian interests as western ones, says leading academic

Rumours that Russia is planning to deploy nuclear weapons in space have been dampened down by experts who say that while such technology is possible, there is no need to push the panic button.

The furore kicked off on Wednesday when the head of the US House of Representatives’ intelligence committee, Mike Turner, called for the Biden administration to declassify information on what he called a “serious national security threat”.

While Turner gave no further details, it was later reported by news outlets, citing unnamed sources, to involve Russia’s potential deployment of a nuclear anti-satellite weapon in space. The Kremlin dismissed the claim as a “malicious fabrication”.

Dr Bleddyn Bowen, an associate professor at the University of Leicester who specialises in outer space international relations and warfare, said the the lack of detail was no reason to panic. “It’s so vague and cryptic, it could be a number of different things. [But] no matter what they are, none of them are a big deal, to be honest. Everyone needs to calm down about this.”

Russia is bound by several legal restrictions regarding the use or presence of nuclear weapons in space. Article 4 of the Outer Space treaty (1967) bans nuclear weapons from being put into orbit, installed on celestial bodies or otherwise stationed in outer space, while the New Start treaty aims to reduce the number of deployable nuclear arms. The Partial Nuclear Test Ban treaty (1963) bans nuclear explosions in space.

Even if Russia ignores these agreements, there are other considerations. Bowen said the rumoured threat may relate to nuclear-tipped anti-satellite weapons but that such a threat was nothing new.

“These are the first and the most crude kind of anti-satellite weapons ever built: the Americans had them in 1959.” He said any state with nuclear weapons already had the technology to use them in space, broadly speaking.

Another possibility, Bowen said, was that the threat related to space-based nuclear weapons that could be used to knock out satellites. Again, the idea is not entirely new: Russia has previously explored the stationing of nuclear weapons in space, albeit to attack ground targets.

“They did this in the 1960s and in the 1970s and found out it’s not actually very useful, and it’s very expensive.” He said the country stopped short of attempting to put nuclear bombs in space.

Bowen said a nuclear bomb detonation in low-Earth orbit would create a flash in the sky, visible to those in the vicinity below, while it is likely there would also be a false aurora similar to the northern lights – as occurred during the high-altitude nuclear test known as Starfish Prime in the 1960s.

Such a detonation would be certain to destroy the desired satellite, with less of a need for accuracy – and Russia does have nuclear weapons to spare.

Yet there are drawbacks. Space-based nuclear weapons are vulnerable to attack from other nations, while the damage from such weapons would be indiscriminate.

“When you detonate a nuclear weapon in space you generate the fireball … but what you [also] generate is the electromagnetic pulse which fries the electrical circuits of anything that’s unshielded within a few thousand kilometres’ radius,” he said. The pulse may also knock out power grids on Earth if the bomb is detonated above or near populated areas.

“After that, you have the radiation that the bomb would generate,” Bowen said. Over time it would fry the electrical circuits of satellites in the wider part of Earth’s orbit.

The loss of satellite services could affect myriad systems on Earth, from telecoms to satellite navigation services. “That can have knock-on effects to the economy, to critical infrastructure, to the financial system, which relies on these satellites.”

In other words, while nuclear bombs could take out a desired satellites, they could also damage Russia’s technology and interests.

“You’ve got to be in a very desperate situation to want to do something like that,” he said. “So I am not losing any sleep over this.”

Russia also has other technology to hand. In 2021 Russia tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile, successfully knocking out one of its own defunct satellites.

But James Green, a professor of public international law at the University of the West of England, said he was also dubious that that system would be deployed. “I think Russia likes to project its space power [to appear] greater than it probably is,” he said.

See: Original Article